When Less Mess Equals More Stress: How I Got Past My Anxiety Over Decluttering


Woman stressed at home


Kayla Heisler
Kayla Heisler1.16k
July 13, 2024 at 2:49AM UTC
I've always struggled with keeping a neat space, and I was always ashamed of it. I didn’t understand how other people kept their environment so orderly with so little effort.
I told myself that the problem would sort itself out when I got older, hoping to become someone who had their life together, someone who had no inclination to keep a layer of 5-month-old receipts crumbled at the bottom of her book bag. Every time I began my clean-out journey, I did so with this better version of myself in mind. If I could learn to keep only what "brought me joy," I figured my life would rearrange itself. Suddenly I would be able to complete triathlons, write a best-selling memoir, and spend all the time I once wasted imagining a clean home traveling the world eat-pray-loving it up. I needed only to discover the wherewithal to declutter.

Whenever this vision of who I could be became impossible to ignore, I would read a few dozen blog posts about how to begin decluttering, the most effective methods, and, of course, the benefits to keep in mind through each step of the cleansing journey. It seemed so simple when I would read the words on the screen, but after the initial gust of motivation, I would get tired and take a series of 20 minute naps right on top of all the stuff piled on my bed that I was supposed to be organizing. Or I would find the journal I kept when I started college, then spend the next hour sitting on my floor reading it — ditto for pictures, ticket stubs, and old playbills. When it came to old clothes I exiled to the donate pile, after a few hours I would have to try everything on, just to make sure giving it up was really the right choice. Then I’d inevitably convince myself the offending garment still belonged in my closet.

Attempting to declutter always felt like an emotional rollercoaster that left me feeling defeated and undisciplined. Yet the clutter itself also overwhelmed me — something I'm not alone in. In addition to clutter making a place physically harder to move in, research, such as this 2009 study, has linked mental health problems to clutter. People who lived in homes that they described as "messy" and "stressful" had higher cortisol levels than those who described their homes as "restorative."

“Decluttering our physical environment has a positive impact on our emotional and mental states. Clear space allows our nervous system to relax. The problem is getting there and actually taking the steps to do it. Emotions get in our way,” says licensed professional counselor Dr. Dori Gatter.

I felt like I was stuck between a rock and a hard place where I knew decluttering would make everything better, but I couldn’t bring myself to actually do it. I realized that just as I don’t have the steady hands of a surgeon or the strength of a professional bodybuilder, I don’t have the organizational skills of a professional — so I shouldn’t compare myself to people who have dedicated their lives to living in these structured ways.

After I accepted that small actions are better than no action, decluttering became easier. Instead of trying to overhaul my life over night, I went through one small area a day at a time, and I realized why I had always stalled.
"When we get this great idea to declutter, we often think about it as a great idea and truly want to organize our lives," says Dr. Gatter. "We think about the outcome and how it will look and feel after, and it sounds so appealing! That is often where we stop, feel stuck and overwhelmed and procrastinate. When we see all of our stuff, we start to feel bad about ourselves for not doing it sooner."

As for getting rid of the things that I really don’t need, that’s still a little difficult. But I’ve learned one trick that has made a difference.

“When I feel apprehension about selling, donating, or disposing of an item, I remind myself of the clarity that comes after the purge party,” says Wellevance founder Ashley Matejka. "I used to be obsessed with the thought of filling up entire bags to drop off to make a difference. But little by little, sending out sweaters that don’t fit me well or old book bags that are no longer my style has led me to clear out more space in my life."

Part of me does still hope that someday I become a minimalist queen who truly does hold onto only the carefully curated essentials. But I’m also no longer letting the shame of falling short of that goal paralyze me into inaction. I can take small steps to better my environment each day, and that in itself is a success.

Kayla Heisler is an essayist and Pushcart Prize nominated poet. She is a contributing writer for Color My Bubble. Her work appears in New York's Best Emerging Poets anthology. 

Why women love us:

  • Daily articles on career topics
  • Jobs at companies dedicated to hiring more women
  • Advice and support from an authentic community
  • Events that help you level up in your career
  • Free membership, always